August 16, 2015

Reflections On “Bloodlands:  Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” by Timothy Snyder

I have rarely if ever read a book which brings to life man’s inhumanity to man more graphically or conclusively than “Bloodlands” by Yale’s Timothy Snyder.  It reveals the horrific killings that went on under the regimes of Stalin and Hitler between 1933 and 1995:  over 14 million people killed or dead, outside of war casualties, the major components being:  the deliberate starvation of almost three million people in the Ukraine under Stalin’s reign, the internal slaughter of Russian dissidents and simply “out of favor” people also under Stalin, the extermination through starvation and shooting of over three million Russian prisoners of war by the Germans, the liquidation of 5.7 million Jewish people, very few of them being from Germany, under Hitler, and, sadly, these are just the highlights.

While I had read many histories dealing with the key facts on this period, there were many new perspectives conveyed to me by this book:

The “manifest destiny” which drove Germany to attack the Soviet Union, following Poland, to expand to the east, having been convinced that it could not create its empire in any other way (e.g. down through India) because of the strength of British sea power.
The incredible loss of life among prisoners of war on both sides.  I find it remarkable that Russia has been able to forgive Germany to the extent they have for what Germans did to their prisoners of war.
The extent of the internal killing of leaders within the Soviet Union, e.g. about half of the generals of the Red Army were executed in the late 1930s; of 139 members of the Central Committee who took part in the Soviet Party Congress of 1934, some 98 were shot.  All in all, the purification of the Armed Forces, state institutions and the Communist party led to about 50,000 executions.
Stalin took as his challenge to defend the homeland of Socialism, the Soviet Union, against a world where both imperialism and capitalism persisted.  I do not think it unlikely that Putin would believe he has the same challenge today, defending Russia against what he sees as an expansionist, ever-intruding force led by the United States that he would describe surely as “imperial” and committed to a unilateral set of values of which capitalism reigns supreme.
The ability of the Soviet Union to fight on after a tremendously rapid advance of the Panzer force is remarkable.  By the end of 1941, no more than six months after launching its attack, the Germans had taken about three million Soviet soldiers prisoner.  About a third of them would die in captivity or in death marches.
“Nazi Germany was the state that starved by policy.”  As Snyder writes “the entire essence of German policy towards the prisoners was that they were not actually equal human beings, and thus certainly not fellow soldiers, and under no circumstances comrades”.  The guidelines of May 1941 had instructed German soldiers to remember the supposedly ‘internal brutality’ of Russians in battle.  German camp guards were informed in September that they would be punished if they used their weapons too little. Death rates in some of the prisoner of war camps reached 2% per day.  Almost 110,000 people died in a camp near Minsk.  These numbers are absolutely incredible and the way people died was inhumane.

I asked myself what did the guards who oversaw this slaughter think during the rest of their lives.  Were they so riveted by the “do or die” circumstance, the demonization of their opponents, that they accepted this as just part of their duty?  The answer for most is probably “yes.”  About half a million of the three million Soviet prisoners who died were shot; the rest died by way of starvation or mistreatment.

And the tragedy continues goes on—demonizing the “other”.

Shias sees Sunnis trying to kill them and Sunnis vice versa.  And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs no elaboration.  As Snyder says, “no major war or act of mass killing in the 20th century began without the aggressors or perpetrators first claiming innocence and victimhood.  In the 21st Century (our century), we see a second wave of aggressive wars with victim claims, in which leaders not only present their peoples as victims but make explicit reference to the mass murders of the 20th Century.  The human capacity for subjective victimhood is apparently limitless, and people who believe that they are victims can be motivated to perform acts of great violence.”

Snyder avers that the moral danger we face is that we might be a perpetrator or a bystander.  It is tempting to say that a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of understanding.  Reaching that conclusion, Snyder says, I believe correctly, is very dangerous.  “To find other people to be inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position; to find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history. It is to fall into their moral trap.  The safer (and for me even more chilling) route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us (and in how dreadfully misguided) made sense to them.”

It was Gandhi who noted that “evil depends upon good, in the sense that those who come together to commit evil deeds must be devoted one to the other and believe in their cause.”

“Devotion and faith did not make the Germans good, but they do make them human.  Like everyone else, they had access to ethical thinking, even if they were dreadfully misguided.”

“Stalinism, too,” Schneider writes, “was a moral as well as a political system.  A young Ukrainian Communist party activist who took food from the starving was sure that he was contributing to the triumph of Socialism.”  “I believed because I wanted to believe,” his was a moral sensibility, even if a mistaken one.

The book also provides telling historical perspective on the importance of Ukraine which bears relevance to what we see today. Hitler’s focus on gaining control of Ukraine was singular. He  knew as Snyder writes that “in late 1940 and early 1941 ninety percent of the food shipments from the Soviet Union came from Soviet Ukraine. Like Stalin, Hitler tended to see Ukraine itself as a geopolitical asset, and its people as instruments who tilled the soil, tools that could be exchanged with others or discarded. The German general staff concluded in an August 1940 study that Ukraine was “agriculturally and industrially the most valuable part of the Soviet Union’. For Stalin, mastery of Ukraine was the precondition and proof of the triumph of his version of socialism. Food from Ukraine was as important to the Nazi vision of an eastern empire as it was to Stalin’s defense of the integrity of the Soviet Union


So through all of this, I ask the question” “what constitutes the compass for a correct moral sensibility? “

 I believe it starts with that simple recognition and conviction that “everyone counts.”  That we all have a right to life and that an ideology or program that denies the right to life for other people, man woman or child, is an ideology to be condemned, whether that is a religion or political system.  It requires that we be aware of our tendency to seek superiority as an individual by comparing ourselves to others invidiously or as a nation by comparing ourselves to others invidiously.  It requires that we treat other people as we would want to be treated, in a way that we would regard as fair. Surely few people today would say that our treatment of the American Indian was fair or respected them as individuals in the way we ignored treaties or did not even establish a treaty to start with.

Establishing a proper moral sensitivity and taking the right action founded on it, also requires a degree of humility, recognition that everyone in the world will not see things the same way we do, certainly not at a given point in time.  And it must recognize that we cannot change everything and that sometimes trying to do so will cause more unintended harm than any good we can do.  I think here, for example, of the harm caused by our decision to invade Iraq.  It counsels us to be mindful of history and what it has to teach about what is the likely outcome of interventions in terms of will they really help people, more people, live the life they would seek to live.

While my position is arguable, I believe that religion has an important role to play here, at least I believe it does for many.  Because I believe that a belief in God and that we human beings share God-given rights, is a compass that leads us to carry out actions within our control and live by the premise that indeed “everyone counts.”  I say the position is arguable because there are so many instances where religious beliefs have proved to be the divisive force that have led people to fight and kill one another.  That notwithstanding, I believe the most fundamental truths taught by every major religion, namely to treat our neighbor as ourselves, will in the end guide many, if not all people, to the right course of action.


The conclusion of Snyder’s book carries enormous impact for me--as he wrote, even as we talk about the numbers, the approximately 14 million people deliberately murdered by two regimes over 12 years, these numbers cannot describe “a unique life.”  We must be able not only to reckon the number of deaths but to reckon with each victim as an individual.  “The one very large number that withstands scrutiny is that of the Holocaust, with its 5.7 million Jewish dead, 5.4 million of whom were killed by the Germans.  But this number, like all the others, must be seen not as 5.7 million, which is an abstraction few of us can grasp, but it’s 5.7 million times one.  It means countless individuals whom nevertheless have to be counted in the middle of life…”

And Snyder goes on then to remind us of  “the girl in the synagogue at Kovel, and everyone with her there, and all the individual human beings who were killed as Jews at Kovel, and Ukraine in the East in Europe.”  I appreciated Snyder’s saying that it is probably easier to think of 780,863 different people at Treblinka:  where the three at the end might have been those individuals who he graphically brought to life before their death in his stunning book.  “It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers (of the total individuals murdered) and to put them into perspective.  It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.  If we cannot do that, then Hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world, but our humanity.”


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